Livestock herding is probably one of the oldest uses of the domestic dog. Dogs have been selectively bred and used for herding for centuries, with evidence dating the beginnings back 4,000 years. The largest kennel clubs have specific groups dedicated to the breeds created for this purpose. There are also separate organizations specifically tailored solely to these herding dogs. While the many breeds vary greatly from one another, their herding ancestry gives them certain, common characteristics.
In rural areas, using dogs for herding livestock is still a way of life for many people. But in urban areas, it’s not typical for everyone to have a working farm. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t own any herding breeds. How many Australian Shepherds, Corgis, and German Shepherds do you see walking around? If you’re involved in any sports like agility and obedience, you probably see a lot of Border Collies as well. These breeds are very popular, and rightfully so. Herding dogs are intelligent and full of personality. They’re energetic, fast thinkers, and constantly keep their owners on their toes. But have you ever wondered if your dog still contains those old, innate instincts that were used so much in the past?
Chances are he does. Even the pet and show dogs of today are able to learn the basics of livestock herding. Better yet, there are breeders working to maintain the incredible drive and instinct that these dogs were originally intended to possess. Most of these breeders are the people mentioned above – those that own working farms and use their dogs daily. So what’s a city dweller to do? As these characteristics are bred and tested, more and more people have become involved in herding. But how can breeders and enthusiasts test their dogs’ abilities if not everyone can have a working farm? Well, luckily for everyone, the many herding breed clubs out there have made herding into a sport.
There are a number of organizations around the globe dedicated to the sport of livestock herding. In the United States, the biggest contenders are probably the AHBA (American Herding Breed Association), USBCHA (United States Border Collie Herding Association), ASCA (Australian Shepherd Club of America), and the AKC. Each club holds a different sort of trial, but all contain the same basic pieces. In each trial, a dog and handler team work together to move livestock (usually sheep, ducks, or geese) around a field, through fences and gates, and into and out of pens. This is easier than it sounds. Livestock are prey animals are easy to scatter and scare. The dog must keep them contained and under control, and guide them effectively through the course. Different breeds have different herding styles, and are judged accordingly. For most organizations, the dog must pass an initial instinct test to make sure he’s got what it takes to move on in the sport. These are fairly simple tests, and require not much more than your dog showing true herding instinct. After the instinct test, there are different titles to acquire through various courses and levels of difficulty. They even have different titles for different types of livestock. In AKC, a dog must pass a trial run three times under two separate judges to obtain the title. Working as a team and learning to trust your dog’s instinct is as challenging as running around those sheep! Don’t forget you’ll need some solid obedience as well, since your dog would probably much rather just chase sheep all day instead of listen to you direct them around a course.
So if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to work livestock with your dog, do not hesitate to give it a try. There are many organizations, clubs and trainers. Whichever of those you choose is up to you. There is a lot to learn, and it’s far more strenuous and intense that it first appears, but the relationship you build with your dog is an incredible reward. So go out there, meet those trainers, step into the sheep pen and send your dog! You’ll be surprised to know he’s probably going to herd them right back to you.
About the Author
Katie is a professional dog trainer located in Southern California, with a background of experience as a veterinary assistant as well. She has trained and competed with multiple breeds in AKC Obedience and Rally, agility, herding, Schutzhund/IPO, French Ring and conformation. She has been involved in dogs since she was a child, and specializes in protection dogs, working dogs, and aggression issues. You can visit her website, Katie’s Dog Training, to find out more information about her training and accomplishments. When she’s not helping others and writing, she’s out on the field with her Belgian Malinois and Pembroke Welsh Corgi.